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Pilot Joe Kittinger once said, “You can’t get any real fun things unless you volunteer.” At the time, he was referring to things like voluntarily jumping out of planes at extremely high (and low-oxygen level) altitudes to help NASA conduct research on zero-gravity environments. Maybe it was his unbridled enthusiasm for precarious work. Or maybe it was just the 1960s. Either way, Kittinger’s volunteerism was instrumental to NASA during its pre-Apollo days. Whether or not he knew it, Kittinger was a citizen scientist.
The Changing Face of Science
A citizen scientist is an individual who, more often than not, voluntarily contributes his or her time, effort, and/or resources to formal or informal scientific research without necessarily having a formal science background.
It used to be that a citizen scientist referred to a bird watcher or an amateur astronomer, but today, citizen scientists come from all walks of life. This includes current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are tuning non-traditional audiences into citizen science; online gamers who lend their skills to specially designed programs to analyze folding protein structures; and students who want a more hands-on experience outside the classroom. Retirees, community organizations, and even prison inmates are getting in on the action.
Formalizing the field
“Amateur science,” “crowdsourced science,” and “public participation in scientific research” are some common aliases for citizen science. Though the monikers suggest an element of novice, the fields that citizen science advances are diverse: ecology, astronomy, medicine, computer science, statistics, engineering and many more.
“There’s a need to get beyond unique terminology and jargon,” says Meg Domroese, coordinator of the Public Participation in Scientific Research conference. “We want to talk about how to formalize as a field so that people can share it, can enter it.”
The Public Participation in Scientific Research Conference was the first of its kind. Science researchers, project leaders, educators, technology specialists, evaluators, and more sat down together to engage in dialogue and exchange ideas. The cross-disciplinary event unveiled the publication of the first journal issue exclusively devoted to citizen science.
With today’s increasingly connected world, we can share collected data for research as instantaneously as we tell our Twitter followers what we had for lunch. Many citizen science projects enable mobile technology to connect with volunteers, collect data, and share results. The opportunities to participate in citizen science are no longer limited by access to tools. Mobile technology makes it possible to help the USGS measure and record earthquake tremors, join NASA’s effort in counting passing meteors, or even help monitor noise and light pollution in our communities. Citizen scientists can help solve the mystery of ZomBees (bees that have possibly been infected by the larvae of parasitic flies), help astronomers classify galaxies, and discover moon craters. Projects like SciSpy and iNaturalist provide a mobile app with which participants can share photos and observations of wildlife in their backyards, cities, and towns.
The idea behind these diverse projects is that anyone, anywhere can participate in meaningful scientific research. For some projects, volunteers literally don’t have to go farther than their own backyards to contribute!
It’s time to bridge more gaps by harnessing the power of people who are motivated by a desire to advance research, a connection with nature, and a goal to improve human health and communities. It’s not difficult to imagine how an informed public can, in turn inform policymakers. In fact, there are national and international groups pushing for this right now.
Citizen science also brings together a range of disciplines. From chemistry to biology to data science to astronomy to archiving sheet music, the spectrum of projects is diverse and manifold.
We may not all be as stoked as pilot Joe Kittinger was to jump out of a plane for the sake of science, but there are thousands of opportunities for us to nurture our curious, scientific minds with our feet firmly on terra firma.
To learn more about citizen science, check out the following sites, articles, and blogs.
Citizen science definition on Wikipedia
Searchable list of 500+ citizen science projects
Cornell Citizen Science Toolkit
Citizen Science | Scientific American
Citizen Scientists League
Lily Bui is a senior contributor at SciStarter.com, a website that connect regular people to real science they can do. Although she holds dual nonscience bachelors’ degrees, served in AmeriCorps, worked on Capitol Hill, and is a touring musician, she has long harbored a proclivity for the sciences. She now works in public radio. In her spare time, she thinks of cheesy science puns.